I avoided news coverage of the Trayvon Martin case for the first few days it was in the news. The story of Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader who found Martin “suspicious” – hit too close to home.
Trayvon’s family has released a ton of photos of him. I’m glad they did, but the pictures are hard to view.
Martin’s sweet, smiling, trusting face, made me think of my own little boy. My son, who is ten and growing, demands the independence to go to the store alone and buy himself a treat, as much to enjoy the fruits of his labor as to enjoy the freedom of crossing the street without his mother holding his hand. Last year, I wrote about how afraid I was to let him go to the store by himself. I eventually relented, but I don’t truly rest easy until he’s back home safe and sound.
As more information comes in to round out the picture of the two men whose lives fatefully collided that awful night, the harder it is for me to think about Trayvon Martin without thinking of my son and other young men in my family – young men who, like Martin, stayed out of trouble, played team sports – and who would gladly, as Martin did, leave their house at night to go to the store to get their litle brother, or younger cousin, some Skittles.
Being the mother of a young black boy often feels hopeless. You do all you can. You work on instilling the right values, a strong work ethic, a sense of pride. You lecture them so they know right from wrong. You make sure you know their friends, and you do your best to keep them away from the “bad kids” – and no matter where you live, every community has them. Especially as our boys approach the teenage years, we mothers of young black boys celebrate every birthday as another year our child beat the odds that seem stacked against him, no matter where he lives – the most dangerous ghetto, or the safest gated community.
You know there is always someone, some element, for whom your child’s very existence will be considered dangerous, suspicious, threatening. And you know if the altercation ever happens between your child and a person imbued with some authority and a gun, there is a very good chance your boy may not come out of it alive, for no reason other than that the color of his skin made someone think he was dangerous. You don’t want to think that someone could look at your sweet, harmless child and think themselves entitled to use deadly force to stop him from living and breathing and walking while black. But you are reminded of mothers, from Emmett Till’s mom, Mamie Till Mobley, to Trayvon Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton, and you can only think – “well, if the grace of God didn’t save their sons, why would His Grace save mine?”
I look at Trayvon’s sweet face and wonder how anyone could look at him and think he was “up to no good, or on drugs or something,” as Zimmerman claimed in his call to 911. No drugs or alcohol were, of course, found on Martin. He wasn’t on drugs, and he wasn’t “up to no good.” He was just walking home. Yet it was easy for Zimmerman to stereotype him, because that’s the stereotype that unfortunately gets played out in the media, reinforced by popular culture.
Good black kids – kids like Trayvon, my son and my nephews – are considered so rare, they’re identifiable only if they exhibit extreme nerdiness, such as wearing taped Coke-bottle classes and high-waisted pants above their ankles, a la the character Urkel from the show “Family Matters.” Unfortunately, the good kids and the bad kids don’t dress all that differently. All kids, regardless of race, class, and socioeconomic status, wear hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans and work boots. So you can’t look at a kid and decide he’s dangerous based on how he’s dressed. You have to pay attention to how he’s acting, who he’s with, what they’re doing. It’s easier to stereotype, but we put all our kids at risk when we allow race, or dress, or some other physical characteristic, to serve as a proxy for criminal or suspicious behavior.
But the Trayvon Martin case is not simply a matter of black and white. This case isn’t a black issue or a civil rights issue, but a human rights issue. Trayvon Martin’s race made him suspicious, but what if someone decided that people with tattoos were suspicious? People with piercings? Shaved heads? Yarmulkes? Burqas? Coach bags? We can’t afford to let one man’s or one woman’s prejudice put our children’s lives at risk.
We also don’t want groups like Neighborhood Watch patrols becoming agents of vigilante justice. Neighborhood Watch patrols are a good thing, but the role of Neighborhood Watch is to do just that – watch, and call the police. Judging from the reports, George Zimmerman should have been relieved of his position as Neighborhood Watch captain some time ago. There have been several cases where unarmed black men were shot by the police, but if the immunity afforded police officers is extended to regular citizens, vigilantes would have a license to kill neighbors they dislike and deem “dangerous.” The rule of law and due process would become a joke.
When little Leiby Kletzky was murdered and dismembered in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, I feared for my own child’s life. When a child is at risk simply for walking home alone from school, or for going to the store to buy candy, all of our children are at risk. I hope justice is served in the Trayvon Martin case. I know nothing can ease the pain of the Martin family, but I hope focusing attention on this tragedy will prevent other families from knowing that pain.